Thoughts on Umberto Eco’s Model Author and Model Reader

Umberto Eco’s Model Author and Model Reader

I love to read. I always have. And, unlike my wife, I don’t care how I read. Book. Computer. Kindle. Phone. I do it all. If it’s a nonfiction book or novel, then all I want is access to it.

That’s why, in my Ph.D., I studied the art of writing, reading, and interpretation. The entire process from compilation to understanding is and always will be fascinating to me.

There’s one theory of the entire process, however, that stuck out to me. It was Umberto Eco’s idea of the model author and model reader.

The idea goes something like this:

There is a real author somewhere, right now, sitting down to write her bestseller. She types the words that will, no doubt, eventually be read by millions. When writing, however, she’s probably not thinking about all of those adoring fans. She’s thinking, rather, about plot, structure, and climax, as well as character, word choice, and a hundred other things.

She’s also imagining, whether it’s explicit or not, the culture that her audience swims in — fishes in all that blue water. In order to make her book intelligible, in other words, she has to write it in such a way that her audience will connect to and understand all of the words, symbols, and meaning that she weaves throughout its three-hundred pages.

As an example, if she writes about the loo to an American audience, then there are a few readers that will miss her meaning. It’s not really their fault, either. Unless she, as the writer, can provide a lot of context and explanation every time she varies from the everyday codes of her audience, they just won’t get it.

But here’s the thing. The audience that this author is holding in her mind’s eye isn’t a real audience. It’s an abstraction. It’s something that Eco calls, “the model reader.”

As he writes it:

To organize a text, its author has to rely upon a series of codes that assign given contents to the expression he uses. To make his text communicative, the author has to assume that the ensemble of codes he relies upon is the same as that shared by his possible reader. The author has thus to foresee a model of the possible reader (hereafter Model Reader) supposedly able to deal interpretatively with the expression in the same way as the author deals generatively with them (7).

Now that’s a mouthful, but it’s essentially the same as my loo example from above. If you’re going to write, then make sure that you’re writing in the shared cultural symbols of your audience.

To summarize, on one side of the book there is the real author writing a real book for a model reader. But that’s not all. There’s more to this equation.

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On the other side of the equation, there is a real reader confronting or engaging a real book that has hidden within its pages a model author.

When I’m reading, I don’t have access to the author. I can’t ask her what she means when I’m confused. I only have the text in front of me. If I want to sort out my confusion, then I have to reread, crosscheck, and interpret.

The text is not a void, however. It was crafted with care. It knows that I’ll need help along the way and so it contains within it signposts — oftentimes connected to a shared culture — that allows me to understand and make meaning from it.

Why isn’t Moby Dick a nine-hundred pound, pink gorilla? Because the text tells me it isn’t and, unless I want to misread it intentionally, I should take it at face value. This is, of course, separate from metaphor. While Moby Dick is a white whale, she represents all manner of concerns to Ahab, Ishmael, and, yes, the reader.

Now there’s a lot more that goes into this, and there are a lot of differing opinions on such an approach to literature. But for me, it’s helpful to think of the signposts and markers that I discover in a text, the ones that help me to decipher it, as Eco’s model author, which is an abstraction of the reader’s.

In the form of a diagram — because literature should always be diagramed, right? — it looks a little like this:

Real Author > Model Author > TEXT < Model Reader < Real Reader

If you’re Eco, then the only thing that matters for the philosophy of reading and writing is the model author, the text, and the model reader. He doesn’t care about either the real author or the real reader. While that might strike you as strange, it makes perfect sense when considering the act of interpretation or understanding.

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But when it comes to thinking through Eco’s theory for the purpose of design, I might need a different strategy.

If I’m working on a project as a real designer, then I no doubt have a model in mind.

More than that, however, I also have data collected from actual, real users, which helps me to generate and steer my decisions throughout the creative process.

And when I’m ready, I can even test my designs out with people who have the opportunity — whoopie! — to meet the real designer.

Design is an art, yes, but it differs from literature in at least one essential way. I don’t want people to interpret my designs. I want them to use them as if they were second nature. I want my designs to be intuitive and clear. I want them to go, in fact, unnoticed.

But there is an overlap here, too.

I create signposts for my users, what Don Norman calls, “signifiers,” the signs, symbols, or indicators that reveal the appropriate use of my designs. The idea is that I can’t be around every single user to tell him or her how to use my designs or what all of the buttons, swipes, and animations accomplish.

I have to design in such a way that my designs, with the appropriate signifiers in the appropriate places, speak for themselves, which brings me to the biggest overlap between Eco’s theory of reading and writing and the process of design.

Designers do their research. They test extensively. And they interact with users whenever they can. But I bet, for most of us, there is an abstraction floating in the back of our minds everytime we sit down to work — the abstraction of the model user.

I have someone in mind, in other words, that is embedded in my target culture and that shares the same signs, symbols, and meanings as me, which allows me to create something that is useful and understandable.

I’ll never meet this user. She doesn’t, in fact, exist. She’s an abstraction of all the users I’ve talked to or know about, all of the users that live somewhere up there, in the computing cloud of culture.

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If I’m honest, then more often than not, I design for my user. Yes, I’m research-based and, yes, I let that shape my decisions, but I also utilize Eco’s concept of the model reader or user to make sure that my designs are intuitive, invisible, and usable.

There is always the question of how best to access my model user. I can only imagine that it comes from diving deeply into cultural analysis and making explicit my own biases and assumptions, neither of which is a bad thing. In doing so, however, I think my designs are a little more clear, a tad more intuitive, and dash more accessible.

But who knows? I like Eco and might be forgiven, just this once, for my excessive desire to connect his theories to the world of design. So if I can leave you with one question, then it’s this: who is your ideal user, that abstraction of culture that you secretly design for, the one that compels you to include pictures of astronauts against your better judgment?

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